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Radical Organizing in the Depression Era

As intertwined health and economic crises unfold across the world, we face the most severe global economic downturn since the Great Depression. Even with private sector unionization in the US at a historic low, however, workers at companies like Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, and Instacart have responded to the unsafe working conditions and low pay to which they are subjected by organizing and, in some cases, going out on strike.

This is a critical time to look back on, and learn from, the history of the labor and radical organizing of the Depression era. For those interested in deepening their knowledge of this important period, we recommend historian Irving Bernstein’s definitive two-volume account of the 1920s and 30s: The Lean Years and The Turbulent Years.

Here, we offer an excerpt from scholar Frances Fox Piven’s introduction to the 2010 edition of The Lean Years:

With the onset of the Great Recession of 2008, many observers began to look back to the era of the Great Depression for the lessons that period could offer about our ongoing economic and social troubles. And there is no better way to begin the search for lessons than in a reading or rereading of Irving Bernstein’s two-volume masterful history of the 1920s and 1930s.

Bernstein’s project in these volumes is to write nothing less than a comprehensive history of American workers during the climactic decades that transformed the country. He approaches his task with a zeal for the facts that we associate with the best of investigative reporters, following each lead wherever the trail goes, and I think it is this radical empiricism that makes his work so valuable and so enduring. He wants to know everything that bears on the experience of working people…

In this first volume, Bernstein carefully traces the experience of working people from 1920 to 1933, from the years of the roaring twenties through the trough of the economic collapse that began in 1929, up to the swearing in of the Roosevelt Administration. As in our own time, the market collapse was preceded by a period of boom and speculation that produced huge fortunes for a few, and a culture that celebrated fabulous riches and excess. But money, booze, jazz, and flappers notwithstanding, the decade also brought hard times to many workers. Mining, agriculture, and textiles were in a slump, and the workers in these sectors bore the hardships that resulted. The first worker protests of the era erupted out of the desperation of hard-pressed Southern textile workers who had only recently left impoverished tenant farms and mounting villages for the textile mills and found themselves ground down by exhausting work for long hours in filthy mills and for pitiful earnings. (It was of course this vulnerable labor force that drew textile manufacturers to the south, sometimes from as far away as Germany, so globalization is not really new.) The mill workers finally rose up in early 1929. But their strikes were ultimately crushed by the conditions that have always thwarted unionism in the American South: the religiosity and xenophobia of Southern communities, state and local politicians ready to ally with employers, the easy resort to violence, and the feebleness of the efforts of national unions to organize under these conditions.

Over the next four years, the poverty and unemployment that afflicted the South spread across the country as the Great Depression took its toll in rapidly rising unemployment, wage cuts, worsening working conditions, evictions and foreclosures, and even cases of actual starvation. But most observers saw little evidence of a spirit of rebellion. Bernstein quotes Louis Adamic in December 1931, when unemployment was soaring, “I have a definite feeling…that millions of them, now that they are unemployed, are licked” (435). “Workers on the way down,” writes Bernstein, “were in no mood to improve, far less to reorganize, society” (436).

In other words, viewed from afar, most of the people who were suffering the hardships of the Depression were depressed and even ashamed, ready to blame themselves for their plight. But the train of developments that connects changes in social conditions to a changed consciousness is not simple. People, including ordinary people, harbor somewhere in their memories the building blocks of different and contradictory interpretations of what it is that is happening to them, of who should be blamed, and what can be done about it. Even the hangdog and ashamed unemployed worker who swings his lunch box and strides down the street so neighbors will think he is going to a job can also have other ideas that only have to be evoked, and when they are, make it possible for him on another day to rally with others and rise up in anger at his condition.

Bernstein is too much the empiricist, too much the detail main, to ignore the growing if scattered evidence even in the early years of the Depression of defiance and protest. His historical account is distinctive for the attention it gives to the episodes of mobbing and rioting that marked the early 1930s, and it is also unusual for his effort to chronicle the efforts of radical organizers to escalate or channel this defiance, and this despite his general disapproval of those radicals, especially those who were Communists.

From time immemorial, hungry people have mobbed and looted food from local markets, and they did this again in the early years of the Depression, although no accurate accounting of these episodes exists if only because the merchants whose supplies were taken feared that calling the police would lead to the press coverage that would only encourage more episodes. Prodded by desperation, people also flocked to unemployment demonstrations, often organized by Communists, and usually (often not without reason) labeled riots by the press. Beginning in 1929 and 1930, crowds assembled, raised demands for “bread or wages,” and then marched on City Hall or on such local relief offices as existed.

In the big cities, mobs of people used strong-arm tactics to resist the rising numbers of evictions. In Harlem and the Lower East Side, crowds numbering in the thousands gathered to restore evicted families to their homes. In Chicago, small groups of Black activists marched through the streets of the ghetto to mobilize the large crowds that would reinstall evicted families. A rent riot left three people dead and three policemen injured in August 1931, but Mayor Anton Cermak ordered a moratorium on evictions, and some of the rioters got work relief. Later, in August 1932, Cermak told a House committee that if the federal government did not send $150 million for relief immediately, it should be prepared to send troops later. Even in Mississippi, Governor Theodore Bilbo told an interviewer: “Folks are restless. Communism is gaining a foothold. Right here in Mississippi, some people are about ready to lead a mob. In fact, I’m getting a little pink myself.” Meanwhile, also in summer 1932, farmers across the country armed themselves with pitchforks and clubs to prevent the delivery of farm products to markets where the price paid frequently did not cover the cost of production.

Before much of this desperation was registered in the mass media or in the musings of intellectuals, it was registered in the voting booths. In the election of 1932, Americans elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency, and a Democratic majority to the Congress. It was one of the infrequent great realignments of American electoral politics. Still, no one could be sure of its significance. After all, the Democratic platform of 1932 was not much different than the platforms of 1924 and 1928. In fact, the election did usher in a new era, although it was not the election alone. Rather it was the complex and intricate dynamic that ensued between political leaders and the aroused populace with whom they now had to contend. The New Deal that they created together is the subject of The Turbulent Years, the second volume of Bernstein’s magisterial study.

Continue to The Great Depression and the Labor Movement: A 1930s Reading List...

  • The Lean Years

  • The Turbulent Years

  • Women Strikers Occupy Chain Stores, Win Big

  • Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1981

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