Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, American History. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: Google Scholar Indexing; date: 25 April 2024

American Labor and Working-Class History, 1900–1945unlocked

American Labor and Working-Class History, 1900–1945unlocked

  • Jeffrey HelgesonJeffrey HelgesonDepartment of History, Texas State University


Early 20th century American labor and working-class history is a subfield of American social history that focuses attention on the complex lives of working people in a rapidly changing global political and economic system. Once focused closely on institutional dynamics in the workplace and electoral politics, labor history has expanded and refined its approach to include questions about the families, communities, identities, and cultures workers have developed over time. With a critical eye on the limits of liberal capitalism and democracy for workers’ welfare, labor historians explore individual and collective struggles against exclusion from opportunity, as well as accommodation to political and economic contexts defined by rapid and volatile growth and deep inequality.

Particularly important are the ways that workers both defined and were defined by differences of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and place. Individual workers and organized groups of working Americans both transformed and were transformed by the main struggles of the industrial era, including conflicts over the place of former slaves and their descendants in the United States, mass immigration and migrations, technological change, new management and business models, the development of a consumer economy, the rise of a more active federal government, and the evolution of popular culture.

The period between 1896 and 1945 saw a crucial transition in the labor and working-class history of the United States. At its outset, Americans were working many more hours a day than the eight for which they had fought hard in the late 19th century. On average, Americans labored fifty-four to sixty-three hours per week in dangerous working conditions (approximately 35,000 workers died in accidents annually at the turn of the century). By 1920, half of all Americans lived in growing urban neighborhoods, and for many of them chronic unemployment, poverty, and deep social divides had become a regular part of life. Workers had little power in either the Democratic or Republican party. They faced a legal system that gave them no rights at work but the right to quit, judges who took the side of employers in the labor market by issuing thousands of injunctions against even nonviolent workers’ organizing, and vigilantes and police forces that did not hesitate to repress dissent violently. The ranks of organized labor were shrinking in the years before the economy began to recover in 1897. Dreams of a more democratic alternative to wage labor and corporate-dominated capitalism had been all but destroyed. Workers struggled to find their place in an emerging consumer-oriented culture that assumed everyone ought to strive for the often unattainable, and not necessarily desirable, marks of middle-class respectability.

Yet American labor emerged from World War II with the main sectors of the industrial economy organized, with greater earning potential than any previous generation of American workers, and with unprecedented power as an organized interest group that could appeal to the federal government to promote its welfare. Though American workers as a whole had made no grand challenge to the nation’s basic corporate-centered political economy in the preceding four and one-half decades, they entered the postwar world with a greater level of power, and a bigger share in the proceeds of a booming economy, than anyone could have imagined in 1896. The labor and working-class history of the United States between 1900 and 1945, then, is the story of how working-class individuals, families, and communities—members of an extremely diverse American working class—managed to carve out positions of political, economic, and cultural influence, even as they remained divided among themselves, dependent upon corporate power, and increasingly invested in a individualistic, competitive, acquisitive culture.


  • 20th Century: Pre-1945
  • Urban History
  • Labor and Working Class History

Workers and the Rise of Corporate America

American trade unionists entered the 20th century battered by a series of savage defeats which, by 1896, brought the end of an era when millions of Americans had joined mass movements seeking alternatives to corporate-dominated, wage-labor capitalism. Labor reformers’ post-Civil War dream of emancipating American laborers from the wage system and their hopes for the creation of a producers’ republic based on principles of cooperation and commonwealth had been shattered in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886. The wind had been stolen from the spirit of unionism in the all-important steel industry at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead mill in 1892, and from industrial unionism on the nation’s rail lines in the defeat of the 1894 Pullman strike and boycott. Finally, the Republican Party’s defeat of the Populist-Democrat fusion in the presidential campaign in 1896 ensured that the vast majority of wage workers and farmers would not have the support of their own national political party.

Ascendant corporate leaders had been emboldened and empowered by much of the public’s revulsion against the labor-related violence of the late 19th century. The forces of “law and order” at the local, state, and federal levels came to the aid of business in strikes and lockouts during the “Age of Industrial Conflict.” Business also won the crucial legal conflict over the definition of “freedom” in the workplace and in employment markets. Court injunctions against labor activity were ubiquitous in the wake of the 1894 Pullman boycott, and case law privileged employers’ prerogatives at all turns. In the eyes of the law, Americans generally—with the exception of married white women—had a responsibility to work, but their sole right at work was the right to quit. Furthermore, legislators paid less attention to workers’ welfare than they did to subsidizing the growth of American industry or sustaining their own political power, all too often lining their pockets with the graft that ran rampant in that period of fantastic growth. Lawmakers had taken the first steps toward regulating trusts and moderating the worst forms of corruption, but those efforts were generally weak, and the nation’s courts ensured that employers’ power in the workplace would be virtually unchecked.

Great changes were taking place, yet Americans generally believed that even more change was needed if the republic were to survive and thrive in the industrial era. In the workplace as much as in surrounding communities, Americans feared the implications of this new era of global economic expansion. Political and ideological violence may have been rare, but when violence broke out, it both stigmatized and divided labor groups, even as it brought swift reactions from local police, private detective firms, and state and federal officials.1 More broadly, a general fear of the revolutionary changes taking shape in everyday life inspired both a broad-based progressive reform impulse, shared by many American workers, and a renewed American radicalism, as well as the forces of reactionary repression and business conservatism that sought to stamp out what many saw as the real possibility of mob action and socialist insurgency.

The labor violence and economic upheavals of the late 19th century had been horrific enough to convince many powerful Americans that reform was necessary. In 1898, Republican president William McKinley, who would be assassinated in 1901 by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, appointed the United States Industrial Commission to study the causes of labor violence. At the same time, a broad group of largely middle-class and elite Americans, soon to be known as Progressives, set out to document and then ameliorate the worst forms of corruption in the economy and politics, and to soften the edges of the new industrial system by making workplaces, consumer products, and neighborhoods safer and healthier. There was no single Progressive Era social movement; rather, reformers sought everything from antitrust legislation, shorter working hours, and safer workplaces to bans on child labor, protective legislation for female workers, and reforms that would clean up manufacturing and the political process.

These top-down reform efforts—efforts that emphasized the need for greater efficiency and order in the economy and at the workplace—would be deeply ambiguous for workers. But they reflected an important move away from the commitments to Social Darwinism and laissez-faire principles that had defined the Gilded Age. Progressive reform itself could become a form of social control. Workers were subjected to intense moral campaigns, the Americanization efforts of both well-intentioned settlement house workers and less salutary anti-immigrant vigilantes, and the institution of “scientific management” regimes fostered by Frederick Winslow Taylor, Elton Mayo, and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. One reformer’s vision of order and efficiency often became a reality of social control for workers.

For most workers, the greatest fears derived from the accelerating changes at the workplace that were well underway by the turn of the century. The mechanization of industry and employers’ drive for efficiency had long been forcing workers to do more specialized task work and robbing them of the control over their work many had enjoyed in systems of craft production. There were benefits as production skyrocketed across the economy. Whereas the pick miner in a coal shaft produced 2.5 tons per day on average, the fully mechanized open pit mines of the 1930s produced 16.2 tons per worker per day. In 1919, Henry Ford’s assembly line produced four times the output per worker per hour than the industry had produced in 1910. Simultaneously, the kinds of occupations Americans held and their experiences at work changed dramatically, not always for the worse. Gangs of day laborers were transformed into legions of semiskilled workers running transportation and equipment handling machines. Skilled, independent workers in iron and steel production became semiskilled machinists and repair technicians. These mechanized factories also required the development of a whole new set of tool-and-die makers. Overall, there was an upward leveling effect of mechanization. Between 1910 and 1930, the proportion of unskilled workers in industrial work fell from 36 to 30.5 percent, the semiskilled rose from 36 to 39 percent, and the skilled increased from 28 to 30.5 percent.2 Not everyone benefited, of course. Black men, when they were not stuck in sharecropping or tenant farming, were generally relegated to the hot, heavy, hard jobs, and most black women were forced to accept the long hours and lack of independence in domestic service.

The 20th century also saw what one historian has described as the “degradation of work.”3 The dream of the United States as an independent producers republic, which had inspired Americans from Thomas Jefferson to the Knights of Labor in the 1870s and 1880s, had long been dead. As early as 1877, two-thirds of American workers were wage laborers, with little hope of opening their own shops or owning their own farms. By 1940, no more than one-fifth of the population of the United States were self-employed.4 Wage labor—underpaid, demanding long hours, and subjecting workers to dangerous conditions (approximately 35,000 workers died in accidents annually at the turn of the century)—had become a permanent condition.5 Not only were the benefits of the wage economy unequally distributed, but the very nature of work became both more demanding and less satisfying. A profound contradiction emerged that arguably continues to shape workers’ lives in the 21st century: “The scientific-technical revolution and ‘automation’ requires ever higher levels of education, training, the greater exercise of intelligence and mental effort in general,” which is accompanied by “a mounting dissatisfaction with the conditions of industrial and office labor.”6

Despite their shared circumstances and some success in building a diverse labor movement in the early part of the century, American workers entered World War I perhaps more divided among themselves than at any other point in the nation’s history. Nativism was on the rise, and workers were divided by skill, craft, race, gender, and region. Industrial employers took advantage of workers’ fears and their internal divisions. On one hand, some corporate leaders developed systems of “welfare capitalism,” voluntarily providing marginal benefits to workers in order to stifle their dissatisfaction at work. On the other hand, business leaders and their allies in politics and the press played workers of different backgrounds against one another in order to undercut the possibility of shared militancy. It would be difficult, even for the most privileged workers, to fight for a place in the system.

Fighting for a Place in the System

With a significant economic recovery underway in 1897, American labor leaders began a new organizing push, primarily through the American Federation of Labor (AFL), railroad brotherhoods, and various unaffiliated unions. These organizations largely excluded racial minorities and women, and this model of organizing sought to come to terms with, rather than to transform, corporate dominance of the industrial economy. Nonetheless, the leaders of these unions and their largely white, male rank and file won critical victories and increased the AFL’s membership from 264,000 in 1897 to 1.6 million by 1904. Moreover, as the historian Julie Greene has shown, it is easy to overstate the apolitical character of the AFL’s “pure and simple unionism.” In addition to “bread-and-butter” contractual issues, the Federation actively pursued political influence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is true, however, that the AFL assumed that trade unionists would speak for all American workers in the political sphere.7

The AFL sustained the power of craft workers in the construction and transportation trades, while also beginning to win benefits for some more skilled industrial workers. The railroad brotherhoods exerted significant, if informal, political influence through allies like Theodore Roosevelt in the Republican Party.8 Even mineworkers—who had a reputation as the most violent and militant of unionists, and who had, indeed, fought many labor wars—had gained enough leverage to cause President Theodore Roosevelt to mediate between the workers and the mine owners in a bitter 1902 anthracite coal strike.

Many, though hardly all, employers had initially accepted the rise of the AFL, even going as far as voluntarily recognizing unions and forming the National Civic Federation, a coalition of labor and business leaders seeking cooperation in the economy. By 1904, however, employers had grown frustrated with the demands of union contracts and workers’ increased militancy, and they began to hit back. They increased the use of “yellow dog contracts” to force workers to sign agreements that promised they would not join a union. Employers divided workers by national origin and regularly employed strikebreaking replacement workers. The National Association of Manufacturers embarked on a concerted “open shop” drive; the forerunner of today’s “right-to-work” laws, these were campaigns by employers and their political allies to ensure that workers in a unionized shop did not have to belong to the union. This protection of workers’ right to contract as individuals amounted to a thinly veiled attempt to undermine all organized labor, as unions could not afford to represent workers who were “free riders” on the backs of their union member coworkers. In 1913, the open-shop drive climaxed in an actual labor war in the Colorado coal fields, as the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company pushed for ever greater production and at one point destroyed a workers’ camp in Ludlow, Colorado, killing eleven children and two women in the attack (see Figure 1).9

Figure 1. “Slain Miner and One of His Fighting Comrades.”

Photo by Bain News Service, Forbes Camp, Ludlow, Colorado, May 3, 1914. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (LC-B2-3034-14), digital ID: LC-DIG-ggbain-15854.

As a result of such attacks on organized labor, membership in unions actually dropped in 1905 and remained stagnant for the next five years. Yet the booming economy before and during World War I increased labor’s power: the AFL’s membership increased by approximately 800,000 between 1910 and 1917, and organized labor as a whole grew to 4 million by 1920.10 The membership also became increasingly diverse in terms of skill level and occupations. These were important gains for workers, but they remained limited in no small part by the failure of the AFL to imagine an alliance with the vast majority of unorganized workers.

Radical Alternatives in the Progressive Era

Workers frustrated with the exclusionary practices and political moderation of the AFL could turn to an embattled world of labor radicalism which was going through something of a renaissance after the defeats of the 1880s and 1890s. American radicals—led by the socialist Eugene V. Debs and an eclectic band of militants that included Mother Jones (Figure 2), Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, “Big Bill” Haywood, and Lucy Parsons, among others—pushed for more radical and immediate change through the Socialist Party, insurgent industrial unions in mining and textiles, and through the Industrial Workers of the World.

Figure 2. “‘Mother’ Jones and Her Army of Striking Textile Workers.” Peirce & Jones for the New York World-Telegram & Sun, Philadelphia, PA, 1903.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, digital ID: LC-DIG-ds-07713.

Founded in 1901, the Socialist Party of America (SP) quickly emerged as a powerful political force. Within a decade the SP had built more than three thousand local branches and forty-two state organizations. Dozens of candidates affiliated with the new party won municipal and county elections on town squares stretching from Texas through Illinois to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the party’s leader, Eugene V. Debs, won 897,000 votes in his run for the presidency in 1912 and more than a million votes for president in 1920, while he was in prison after being convicted of sedition during World War I.

In the 1910s, garment workers in New York City and Chicago organized unions in the industry for which the term “sweatshop” was coined. Although workers suffered oppressive conditions in sweatshops, they were isolated from the rest of the workforce, and they could not take action directly against the manufacturers. But as manufacturers moved production to larger factories in order to produce standardized clothing and to distance themselves from the increasingly negative reputation of sweatshops—spread by Progressive reformers—the larger shops also brought unskilled workers out of their relative isolation. Working conditions did not necessarily improve in larger shops, but opportunities to build worker solidarity presented themselves. Employers attempted to maintain divisions among workers, separating them by ethnicity and gender, and by offering “bonus pay” to the most productive workers.

After years of suffering, garment workers organizing came in quick surges: the “Uprising” of 20,000 in New York City in 1909, another strike of 60,000 workers in New York City in 1910, a 1910–1911 strike of 40,000 workers in Chicago, and the movement for unionization and reform after the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York in March 1911 (Figure 3). Together these actions reinvigorated the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and created the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. In one of the most dramatic moments in U.S. labor history, the young immigrant garment worker Clara Lemlich took the stage from AFL leader Samuel Gompers, who had refused to call a strike. Speaking in Yiddish, she called her fellow garment workers to action. Within two days, approximately 20,000 workers from 500 factories were on strike. By the 1920s, the tens of thousands of members of the ACWA and the ILGWU had won the closed shop, higher wages, shorter working hours, and better working conditions. These events also revealed the politicization of immigrant women in the industry and showed that immigrant workers could be organized, contrary to much AFL commentary. Along with the United Mineworkers, the garment workers forged a new model of unionism, demonstrating that a pragmatic industrial unionism could succeed as well as the more hidebound craft unionism of the AFL. In this, the new unions were important exceptions to the rule of non-socialist craft organizing of the era.11

Figure 3. “Photograph of Police Officers, Civilians and Victims on the Sidewalk during the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.” March 25, 1911.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Photographs, 1870–2004, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (#6040083).

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) created another key, if short-lived, bastion of American labor radicalism. Founded in Chicago in 1904, the IWW took inspiration from a group from the Western Federation of Miners who had been radicalized during a series of violent strikes in Idaho, Montana, and Colorado. Rallying around their shared distaste for the AFL’s conservatism and exclusionary practices, the IWW sought to create “One Big Union” of all workers regardless of skill level, race, ethnicity, or gender. Emphasizing the necessity of direct action and workers’ control of the workplace, they called for an end of the wage system and workers’ ownership of the means of production. The “Wobblies,” as the members came to be known, tapped into and inflamed the radical spirit of many of the most marginalized workers. The IWW thus backed its demands for the fulfillment of workers’ needs, the bread of daily life, with the threat of a radical sensibility at least rhetorically committed to revolution. (see Figure 4).

The preamble to the IWW’s 1908 constitution declared, “A struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.”12 The IWW’s revolutionary vision inspired many miners, loggers, and migrant agricultural workers in the West, as well as unorganized industrial workers in the East. Together, they built a lively workers’ culture with hundreds of songs collected in the Little Red Songbook. IWW membership peaked at 600,000 in 1916, riding a wave of important victories and broader socialist sentiment. Most famously, in the 1912 “Bread and Roses Strike” in Lawrence, Massachusetts, IWW leaders joined with local workers to strike against wage cuts and many years of low wages, long hours, dangerous working conditions, and terrible living conditions in the communities surrounding the factory. The IWW sustained a thread of American radicalism that otherwise might have been lost. The Wobblies’ radical critique of capitalism, their at least rhetorical support for direct action tactics such as sabotage, and their unswerving commitment to interracial organizing among all men and women carried these principles on through the relatively conservative first three decades of the century. The IWW also sustained the idea of industrial unionism, which was a minority strain the AFL’s organizing efforts, emphasizing that workers ought to be organized across all skill levels in a given industry.

Figure 4. “I.W.W. Hat Card.” Bain News Service, New York, NY, April 11, 1914.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (LC-B2-3017-30), digital ID: LC-DIG-ggbain-15713.

Obstacles to Organizing in the Progressive Era

During the Progressive Era, the American Federation of Labor claimed to speak for all American workers. Still, with few exceptions, the AFL consisted largely of skilled, white, male workers, and focused its strikes, lawsuits, and limited political activity on maintaining those workers’ craft privileges.13 Its leaders also discouraged any organizing efforts not under the banner of the AFL, treating them as “dual unions,” or as enemies seeking to undermine the AFL. Furthermore, the federation’s leaders refused to engage in the broad political work that would have allowed them to challenge the anti-labor decisions of the courts or the narrowness of Progressive Era reforms.14 Such a closed, jealous, and litigious world of labor was hardly a beacon for the growing ranks of new immigrant and American migrant workers entering the deskilled factories of the North.

The limits of the Socialist Party’s gains also became clear soon enough. In the electoral arena, the SP never managed to reach the status of a viable third national party. The SP may have maintained a significant base of voters—as shown in Debs’s 1 million votes in the 1920 presidential election—but their efforts ran headlong into the anti-radical repression during and after World War I and the deeply conservative Republican ascendancy of the 1920s. Moreover, to the extent that Socialist politicians, such as Victor Berger and his allies in Milwaukee, made gains toward practical reform, they also distanced themselves from the more radical class politics of much of the American left. The Socialist leader Morris Hillquit denounced Berger and his allies as “sewer socialists”—sticking them for constantly bragging about how good Milwaukee’s sewer system was, even as they had failed to push forward the larger class struggle. Similarly, when socialist trade unionists rose to the leadership ranks in AFL unions, their pragmatism emerged. “Time and time again,” concludes the historian David Brody, “once they had acceded to office, Socialists began to act—if they did not always talk—like any other trade unionists.”15 Accommodation to established centers of power, however justifiable it may have been for Socialist activists in particular political contexts, added to the effects of internal divisions and repression of the left in limiting the SP’s radical challenge to American political and economic systems.

The IWW—in part because the Wobblies had some success, and in part because they sustained an unflagging rhetorical radicalism—also became the target of government and vigilante repression. Wobbly activists leading “free speech campaigns” faced club-wielding police officers and were whipped and even tarred and feathered by vigilantes throughout the West. During World War I, 1,200 miners suspected of being aligned with the IWW in Bisbee, Arizona, were rounded up, forced onto a freight train at gunpoint, and abandoned in the desert without food or water for a day and half before a nearby military commander arranged for their extradition to New Mexico. At the same time, the federal government raided IWW offices across the country and convicted hundreds of Wobblies for antiwar speech. In the end, the IWW became one of the driving forces behind the rise of the American Civil Liberties Union and the push for protections of free speech during and after World War I, but the Wobblies could not save themselves from this repression. By the end of the war, with many of its leaders imprisoned, deported, or having fled the country, the IWW was unable to sustain itself as an institution.

Still more obstacles stood in the way of mass labor organizing in the first decades of the 20th century. Chief among them were the racial and ethnic divisions that ran through the shop floors of American industry. Historians have examined in great detail the intraclass racism that blocked white workers from acting in ways that would have been truly class-conscious. Between the late 19th century and World War I, tens of thousands of black workers gained access to unions, some all-black but some biracial in organization. Yet unions often acted as agents of division; some included racial exclusion clauses in their constitutions, while others gave lip service to solidarity while declaring that, in practice, black workers would undercut the wages and opportunities of white workers. For their part, recent black migrants from the South, the majority of black workers in the factories, alternately feared or despised the “white man’s union.”16

White workers and union leaders used episodes of black strikebreaking as evidence that black workers were inevitably the opponents of labor progress. Whites’ descriptions of black workers represented a powerful, if contradictory, mix of racist notions of black inferiority and fear of black physical superiority. Black workers, they feared, could outwork white workers, and black workers would do it on the cheap. In 1901, the AFL defended itself against accusations of racism, arguing that “the antipathy … some union workers have against the colored man is not because of his color, but because of the fact that generally he is a ‘cheap man.’”17 But by 1905, the division between white and black workers had become so pronounced that AFL chief Samuel Gompers (Figure 5) declared, “If the colored man continues to lend himself to the work of tearing down what the white man has built up, a race hatred worse than any ever known before will result. Caucasian civilization will serve notice that its uplifting process is not to be interfered with in any such way.”18 Not surprisingly, black leaders felt differently. The black political leader Ida B. Wells praised strikebreakers as “men who proved their value by risking their lives to obtain work,” and she endorsed “the constitutional right of all men to earn a living and to protect themselves in the exercise of that right.”19

Figure 5. “Samuel Gompers—Federal Commission on Industrial Relations, New York, New York,” 1915.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (LC-B2-3361-1).

Workers and labor reformers also struggled to organize during one the most conservative eras in United States judicial history. In its 1905 decision in Lochner v. New York (198 U.S. 45), the United States Supreme Court overruled a New York law limiting hours for bakery employees. Rather than being necessary to protect the welfare of the workers, the court found that such hours legislation amounted to an unconstitutional attempt to regulate business, and “unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract.” With this reading of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause, the Court would go on in subsequent years to constrain workers’ rights and legislative efforts to reform the industrial system. In 1908, for instance, the Court upheld what were known as “ironclad” or “yellow dog” contracts, which forced individual workers to sign an agreement not to join a union in order to secure a job. Also in 1908, the Court found that labor boycotts of employers had been banned by the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act. In fact, there were more antitrust actions brought against union activities than business combinations until the Clayton Act of 1914 attempted to exclude union activity from the regulation of commerce, declaring that “the labor of human beings is not a commodity.” In 1911, the Court banned consumer boycotts, and in this period it also upheld blacklisting of union organizers, the constitutionality of company towns, and employers’ use of civil lawsuits to resist interference in their businesses. Even when the Court did support the constitutionality of reform measures, as in the 1908 Muller v. Oregon (208 U.S. 412) case allowing for limiting the number of hours women could work, the judges did so by appealing to the notion that women were the weaker sex and had special responsibilities in the home. The justices found support in the “widespread belief that woman’s physical structure, and the functions she performs in consequence thereof, justify special legislation restricting or qualifying the conditions under which she should be permitted to toil.”

The Supreme Court’s antagonism to any limits on the individual’s “liberty of contract” ran counter to legislators’ gradual rewriting of state and federal law. The U.S. Congress regulated child labor in 1919 and instituted a system of workers’ compensation in 1916, while twenty-five states passed workers’ compensation laws between 1911 and 1921. State and federal officials also formally began investigating workers’ safety, especially after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City in 1911 created widespread outrage against the factory owners’ willful refusal to protect their workers from dangerous conditions. The 1926 Railway Labor Act required railway industry employers to engage in collective bargaining and banned discrimination against unions in the railway industry (this was expanded to airlines in 1936). The 1931 Davis-Bacon Act required construction contracts with the federal government to specify a minimum or “prevailing” wage for workers under that contract. The 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act for the first time provided protection for workers’ rights to organize, banned yellow dog contracts, and outlawed the use of court injunctions in nonviolent labor disputes. By 1932, then, in the face of much judicial resistance, legislators had responded to growing public alarm by initiating a revolution in labor law that would come to fruition when the Supreme Court upheld the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.

World War I and the Hope for Industrial Democracy

World War I provided an unprecedented opening for unions to make gains and for workers who had traditionally been excluded from industrial work to enter the nation’s factories. The federal government spurred a national mobilization of the workforce and economic resources, while coordinating industrial planning. Although the government went so far as to take over the railroads, the federal intervention in the economy hardly represented wartime socialism. Instead, the government relied on industry leaders who acted as “dollar-a-year” men, voluntarily aiding in the planning of the wartime economy, and it ensured profits for industry with cost-plus contracts. In essence, the federal government forged a larger role in managing the economy with the primary goal of efficient war-related production. This managed economy also facilitated the private accumulation of capital for employers and benefited masses of workers.

Why was this a boon for unions and workers? In the first place, the wartime economy required labor peace. Therefore, the federal government facilitated the formation and growth of unions. At the same time, the wartime economic boom required many new workers. With the end of European immigration and the draft of white men into the military, women and African Americans found new opportunities. The long-term consequences of the war differed sharply for women and men. Women’s industrial experiences proved to be a largely temporary phenomenon. The war did help to provide the necessary impetus to pass the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote. But the war did not lead to major changes in gender roles; gender lines in the workforce reemerged after the war, and the popular image of the liberated “flapper” in the Roaring Twenties remained a decidedly minority experience.

For African Americans, the war sparked a major demographic, economic, and political transition. Between 1915 and 1918, nearly 500,000 African Americans migrated from the South to northern cities, with another 700,000 following in their wake during the 1920s. The Great Migration, as this movement of black southerners to industrial cities has been called, began a process that not only transformed the lives of the migrants but also fundamentally changed the populations and politics of major American cities.20 World War I-era migrants built modern black urban communities in places like New York’s Harlem, Chicago’s South Side, and Detroit’s Black Bottom. Out of these communities would grow civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, black nationalist organizations like Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, and the first major black labor radicals and trade unions. In the 1920s, Harlem was especially fertile ground for black working-class politics. As African American artists and writers created the Harlem Renaissance, black socialists and communists spoke on soapboxes on New York City’s streetcorners and helped popularize a black class politics. Building on the longstanding activism of Hubert Harrison and others, people like A. Philip Randolph who got their start in the 1910s would help build a nationally powerful, labor-based civil rights movement in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Business Decade

World War I seemed to offer an opportunity for workers to improve their position in the economy. Workers, in fact, gained a great deal in real wages and political power during the brief period of nearly full employment during the war. Yet unions’ efforts to institutionalize their place in an “industrial democracy” were roundly defeated in a series of strikes between 1919 and 1921. In 1919, alone, more than 4 million workers—approximately one-fifth of the workforce—went on strike. A general strike of 60,000 in Seattle, Washington, a strike by nearly the entire police force in Boston, Massachusetts, and a national steel strike of 350,000 workers in Pittsburgh and beyond (Figure 6) are representative of the broad scope of the strikes by workers fearful that they would lose what they had won during the war and facing the prospect of a severe postwar recession. In each case, the workers lost, and they ended up more divided than before, and more desperate for jobs at virtually any wage. Moreover, the entrenched economic conservatism of the federal government and popular culture not only marginalized labor unions but also celebrated the spirit of innovation, speculation, and acquisitive individualism of the “business decade.”

Figure 6. “Pittsburgh Strike [1919 Strikers Demonstrating in Car].”

Photo by Bain News Service, 1919. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (LC-B2-5005-13), digital ID: LC-DIG-ggbain-29279.

The benefits of the business decade were deeply unequal. To many Americans, the 1920s seemed to promise the unending expansion of the American economy. Consumer goods proliferated. The number of telephones doubled, by 1930 about half of Americans had indoor toilets, and Henry Ford refined assembly line production, allowing many working families to own a car. Yet the expansion of the consumer economy depended on an equal expansion of the consumer credit economy; Americans bought their radios and other modern wonders on installment plans. Moreover, even with the greater availability of credit, full participation in the consumer economy remained a dream for most. As the economic historian W. Elliot Brownlee notes, “Only one family in six owned an automobile, only one family in five owned a fixed bathtub or had electricity in its home, and only one family in ten had a telephone.”21 As importantly, while the automobile and other manufacturing industries boomed, core American economic sectors lagged far behind. Workers in these “sick industries,” including agriculture, mining, and New England textiles, were facing depression conditions well before the stock market crash in 1929.

Unions declined sharply in the 1920s under pressure from a conservative attack. Employers promoted an “American Plan” that celebrated the democracy of the open shop and that associated organized labor with un-American economic systems. Companies also promoted “welfare capitalism,” providing workers with benefits such as home loans, group insurance policies, stock options, and regular sponsorship of sports teams all in the name of reducing costly labor turnover and improving industrial harmony. Perhaps most importantly, some four hundred firms created Employee Representation Plans, or company unions, which sought to promote worker allegiance to the company and to provide a kind of pressure release for workers thinking about organizing in their own interests. Welfare capitalists sought to prevent unions from ever rising again, and for a time they succeeded. The number of strikes receded dramatically, and union membership declined. The success of unregulated markets and welfare capitalism, however, was short-lived, and the mass unemployment, poverty, and insecurity of the 1930s would help spark the greatest surge in union members in U.S. history.

The Crash and Its Immediate Aftermath

On October 24, 1929, “Black Tuesday,” traders on the New York Stock Exchange shed 16.4 million shares of stock, causing a drastic decline in the overall value of stocks. From a high of 381 on September 3, 1929, the Dow Jones Industrial Average ultimately fell to a low of 41.22 on July 8, 1932. Approximately five thousand banks failed between 1929 and 1933. Industrial production declined by over half between the crash and the middle of 1932. By that year, unemployment soared to between one-quarter and one-third of the total labor force. Things were not much better for those who managed to hold onto employment: wages fell 50 to 75 percent in the early years of the Great Depression. Economic sectors that had been struggling in the 1920s saw conditions only worsen; farm income declined by 60 percent, and one-third of famers lost their land in the 1930s. The industries that had driven the prosperity of the 1920s were now failing; by 1932, the automobile industry was producing at only 20 percent of its capacity. The stock market crash laid bare the underlying weaknesses in the U.S. economy and created mass unemployment, poverty, and insecurity.

President Herbert H. Hoover responded to the crash much more energetically than previous presidents had in similar crises, but his efforts were too limited to meet the depth of this one, in part because he remained steadfastly committed to voluntaristic, optimistic, Progressive-style interventions. Hoover moved to shore up public confidence while also supporting business leaders’ efforts to protect their financial interests. As Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon advised his fellow capitalists to “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate,” Hoover assured the nation that the “fundamental business of the country was sound,” and asked for voluntary cooperation from corporate managers to maintain employment and wages. As realization of the deepening crisis dawned on him, Hoover also increased federal funds for public works, moved to cut taxes, and requested private agencies, as well as state and local governments, to provide relief to the approximately 7 million unemployed by 1931. Arguing that direct unemployment relief was a “dangerous” suggestion, Hoover instead created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which provided loans to businesses and banks in the hope that greater corporate stability would strengthen the economy.

President Hoover’s limited, top-down response to the crisis aggravated widespread anxieties and led to a new level of popular unrest. Destitute Americans living in shantytowns (Figure 7), popularly known as “Hoovervilles,” clearly blamed the president for their condition. Thousands of Americans joined in organizing for relief from the federal government. In unemployed organizations, spearheaded by socialist and communist organizers, Americans demanded monetary relief and reinstalled tenants in their apartments when they were evicted. The most important protests and strikes of the 1930s were still years away, but the unemployed organizing of the early 1930s played an important role in increasing popular militancy.

Figure 7. “William A. Swift, Once a Farmer, Now a Resident of Circleville’s ‘Hooverville.’ When he Returned from the War He Went West. “Made awful good money jobbin’ around.’”

Photo by Ben Shahn for the Farm Security Administration, 1938. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (LC-USF3301-006408-M5), digital ID: LC-DIG-fsa-15603.

In 1932, a group of 22,000 World War I veterans marched on Washington, D.C., to demand that the U.S. Congress pay them the bonuses they had been promised for their service in the war. For weeks thousands of veterans camped on Anacostia Flats, within sight of the Capitol, while President Hoover and Congress refused to pay the bonuses. Finally, the president sent the U.S. Army to break up the “Bonus Army” camps. Generals Douglas McArthur, George Patton, and Dwight Eisenhower led the operation. Photographs and newsreels showed tanks rolling through the streets of the nation’s capital, and current U.S. soldiers setting fire to tents occupied by the heroes of World War I, and they contributed to Hoover’s loss of public support as the 1932 election neared.

Workers and the Changing State during the New Deal

By 1932, Herbert Hoover had become by all accounts the most unpopular person in the United States. In contrast, New York’s governor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, brought his optimistic paternalism to the national public, projecting confidence and campaigning on the promise that he would bring “Happy Days Again.” As governor, Roosevelt had experimented with unemployment relief and public works programs that became popular among New Yorkers. Yet he came to the presidency with no immediate or comprehensive solution to the nation’s economic troubles. Instead, the New Deal represented a series of experiments which, though they did not pull the nation out of the depression (only economic mobilization for World War II would do that), still dramatically transformed the American economy by creating a new welfare state, strengthening unions, and affirming the economic importance of government action as a source of both spending and business regulation.

President Roosevelt immediately took steps to address the national crisis. He initiated important banking reforms, rationalizing and regulating the banking system and providing deposit insurance. Together, these reforms arguably created the conditions for relative financial stability that helped make possible the growth of a mass middle class after World War II. Roosevelt and his allies also ended the alcohol ban of Prohibition, eliminating one cause of suffering and chaos in working-class communities. He also expanded direct relief to the poor and enlarged public works projects significantly.

President Roosevelt then embarked upon a series of legislative efforts known by historians as the “first New Deal.” Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in June 1933, which sought to create a new corporatist style of regulated and planned economy in which big government, big business, and labor would work together to achieve greater efficiency. The NIRA eliminated most antitrust restrictions and, in return, asked businesses to cooperate with the National Recovery Administration (NRA), a new federal agency which would oversee a wide range of economic activities, notably wages, the prices of consumer goods, and the cost of transportation. The Supreme Court, however, struck down the NIRA because the law amounted to unconstitutional federal intervention in interstate commerce.

Yet the NIRA had two longer-lasting and largely unforeseen consequences. First, it reinforced the federal commitment to public works programs as part of the solution to the national crisis. Second, the NIRA stipulated that “employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing,” which marked the first time the federal government legally recognized workers’ right to union representation. Although NIRA, and its Section 7a, were quickly found unconstitutional, the support of the federal government for labor organizing helped strengthen an already growing surge in rank-and-file labor organizing.

In the wake of the passage of Section 7a, millions of American workers acted on their desire for union representation—more than 1,800 strikes occurred in 1934 alone—while also demonstrating that the AFL would not be able to contain or take full advantage of the aspirations of American industrial workers. Mass strikes broke out in 1934 among West Coast dock workers, in auto parts factories in Toledo, Ohio, in the trucking industry in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and in the East Coast textile industry. In each case, the AFL had made initial efforts to act on the rights specified in Section 7a and to organize thousands of new workers. The AFL, however, either backed down completely or failed to address the grievances of rank-and-file workers. Tens of thousands of workers then acted without the support of the AFL. Workers battled with police, the National Guard, and citizens’ committees in efforts to win their unions. In those battles, the West Coast International Longshoremen’s Association, which would become the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, built its longstanding reputation for radicalism and interracial social movement unionism. In Toledo, workers at the Electro Auto Lite Company survived clashes with National Guardsmen to win union recognition, wage increases, and other gains, while creating an important piece of the foundation for what became the United Auto Workers. In Minneapolis, four workers died in citywide violence, but they also broke through in that previously hardcore anti-union city and set the stage for the national unionization of the trucking industry.

In the long term, the 1934 strikes helped organize broad sectors of the American working class, but in the short term the strikes also helped polarize domestic politics. Indeed, 1935 and 1936 were years of greatly increasing political conflict. President Roosevelt found his support from business leaders evaporating after NIRA was struck down and after the 1934 strikes demonstrated the threat, as owners saw it, of giving workers the right to unionize. At the same time, critics to the president’s left argued that he had done too little to provide direct relief to the unemployed in the form of jobs, cash relief, and a safety net of welfare programs. Radical communists and socialists joined militant organizers for the unemployed to push for greater support for the unemployed. Populists such as Louisiana senator Huey Long and the Catholic radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, among others, demanded that the president do more for “the forgotten man.”

In response, President Roosevelt broke with the business leaders and pushed in 1935 for a flurry of legislation that would come to be known as the “Second New Deal.” The Social Security Act and Aid to Families with Dependent Children both responded directly to the populist critics by providing old age insurance and relief to poor families. In the long run, both allowed for a major reduction in poverty among young people and the elderly. In addition, the Second New Deal greatly expanded public works programs. Congress also passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which reaffirmed workers’ rights to organize unions and bargain collectively, outlawed what the act called “unfair labor practices” that amounted to business efforts to prevent unionization or to break unions, and created the National Labor Relations Board to adjudicate workers’ complaints against their employers.

The Second New Deal had only limited immediate effects. The first Social Security check did not go out until January 31, 1940. The public works agencies were administered by local offices and were, therefore, racially segregated in the South and everywhere tended to benefit white male workers. New Deal legislation increased the benefits that African Americans derived from the federal government, especially in northern cities, where black voters gradually shifted to the Democratic Party beginning in the late 1930s. Yet New Deal employment benefits did not apply to agricultural workers or domestic workers, which meant that most black and female workers were not covered by unemployment insurance or Social Security. At the same time, programs such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the Tennessee Valley Authority, among others, directly or indirectly displaced significant numbers of black farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers from the land. Conservative opposition and the Democrats’ desire to scale back federal action after the flurry of legislation in 1935 and 1936 also moderated the immediate influence of the New Deal. The NLRA had to survive legal challenges, which prevented aggressive action by the NLRB during the first years of its existence. Moreover, as some of the New Deal measures began to improve economic conditions, President Roosevelt and his advisors moved to scale back federal spending in the belief that the recovery could proceed on its own, and the economy slowed down again. The resulting “Roosevelt Recession,” combined with popular reaction against Roosevelt’s efforts to pack the Supreme Court with New Deal-friendly justices, basically brought the New Deal to a standstill in 1938 and 1939.

The New Industrial Union Movement

For all its limitations, the Second New Deal helped energize the U.S. labor movement. With federal recognition of their right to organize, American workers in previously non-union industries created another surge in organizing activity. This new movement to organize the unorganized differed from the 1934 strikes because it was a coordinated and concerted drive for industrial unionism. Led by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers of America, Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, and David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Committee for Industrial Organization (soon to be the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or the CIO) operated autonomously from the outset, although it was officially within the structure of the AFL, and it set out to organize industrial rather than craft unions.

Lewis, Hillman, and Dubinsky took advantage of workers’ newfound rights by building unions in the mass production industries. They first formed the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC), led by Phillip Murray, to unionize steelworkers excluded from the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers, which had long represented only skilled steelworkers. In 1936 and 1937, the CIO broke through in the notoriously anti-union auto industry by deploying sit-in strikes at General Motors plants in Flint, Michigan (Figure 8). Occupying the GM factories, workers won community support and, after bitter battles in the streets (with many women on the front lines), they forced the company to recognize the CIO union. The stunning success at GM persuaded U.S. Steel, the nation’s largest steel producer, to recognize Murray’s steelworkers’ union without a strike. The CIO faced continued, often violent resistance from Ford and from the group of steel companies collectively known as “Little Steel.” Nonetheless, within months hundreds of thousands of workers joined the “house of labor,” and the momentum spread among workers in packing houses, newspapers, the electrical industry, the public sector, canneries, and even white-collar workplaces.

Figure 8. “Striker and His Fiancée (Sitdown Strike Romance) in the Women’s Auxiliary Room in Pengally Hall.”

Photo by Dick Sheldon for the Farm Security Administration, Flint, Michigan, 1937. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (LC-USF34-040019-D), digital ID: LC-DIG-fsa-8c28661.

As the CIO succeeded in organizing industrial workers, the differences between the AFL and the new unions became increasingly apparent. The CIO built unions in manufacturing centers that had been ignored by the AFL. AFL and CIO leaders also clashed over the CIO unions’ willingness to work with a broad range of organizers. Between 1935 and 1939, the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) pursued a “popular front” strategy, allying with organizations working for broad democratic change, rather than adhering to a narrow communist ideological line. CPUSA members became perhaps the most energetic and persistent of union organizers. Dubinsky grew unhappy with the prevalence of communist organizers in CIO unions and brought the ILGWU back into the AFL fold. Finally, in November 1938, the CIO held a national convention and created an independent confederation of industrial unions, now known as the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Though the Roosevelt Recession nearly halted the CIO’s growth, the industrial unions took advantage of industrial recovery during World War II to build on their gains in the 1930s. After the war, these CIO unions, along with the growing building trades and teamsters unions in the AFL, would become known as “Big Labor” and play central roles in the economy and politics.

African Americans’ relationship to labor changed dramatically in the 1930s. During the first years of the decade, the CPUSA emerged as an ally for black workers and for the cause of civil rights. Communist Party organizers, for example, led many of the unemployed organizations, fighting to bring government resources to black neighborhoods and to prevent the eviction of black tenants. The party’s legal arm, the International Labor Defense Fund, came to the assistance of the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine African American teenagers falsely accused of raping a white woman on a train and wrongly convicted in Scottsboro, Alabama. Black Americans pragmatically took advantage of such alliances. They were never members of the Communist Party in large numbers, but some black organizers and radicals joined the party at least for a short time, and many were generally willing to work with it to fight racial inequality through the labor movement. Party organizers energized the CIO’s efforts to organize interracial unions. CIO leaders, including the important group of left-wing organizers, understood that for practical or idealistic reasons, or both, the new industrial unions could challenge the AFL and their employers only if they built a culture of interracialism. Nonetheless, as the CIO grew, according to the historian Bruce Nelson, “it was constrained by a membership majority that had little or no commitment to a broad-gauged social-democratic agenda.”22 Racial discrimination in unions and working-class racial tensions remained key factors in American workplaces, and, indeed, have yet to be fully resolved.

For all the interracial organizing of radical activists and the CIO, black workers forged their own paths into the labor movement. Most notably, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) became the first national African American union to win a charter from the AFL in 1935. African American men had long worked as porters for the Pullman Palace Car Company. They acted as the servants of white customers on Pullman trains, providing first-class service in return for tips. They earned meager wages, which meant that they needed to play to the racist stereotype of the subservient black man. Some historians have argued that the access to jobs as Pullman porters helped create the foundation for the black middle class, but for many workers at the time the work was degrading, required long hours, and paid far too little. In August 1925, five Pullman porters formed the BSCP in New York City. They were inspired by a growing labor-based black protest politics led by a “new crowd” of African American activists unsatisfied with the existing interracial, middle-class civil rights and social work groups. The porters called on New York socialist A. Philip Randolph (Figure 9) to lead their union drive. For twelve years, Randolph and the men and women organizing for the BSCP struggled to overcome resistance from the Pullman Company and skepticism toward unions in the black community. The Pullman Company bought support from black leaders, especially in its home city of Chicago, by donating money to local black organizations. The support worked, and the BSCP found that African Americans in Chicago not only distrusted unions because of their history of racial exclusions, but also saw labor protests as disreputable and perceived the Pullman Company to be the friend of the black community.23

Figure 9. “Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [A. Philip Randolph, Organizer of the Demonstration, Veteran Labor Leader who Helped to Found the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, American Federation of Labor (AFL), and a Former Vice President of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)].” U.S. Information Agency, August 28, 1963. Record Group 306, Still Picture Branch, U. S. National Archives (#542064).

The BSCP found the 1930s a much more productive period. Growing militancy of the labor and civil rights activism among the unemployed in the early 1930s, in the CIO’s interracial unions, and among black railroad dining car employees and “red caps” (luggage porters at train stations) all fostered a black working-class alignment with the labor movement. In addition, New Deal labor laws created opportunities to break down resistance from the AFL and the Pullman Company. The BSCP aligned with longstanding civil rights leaders in Chicago, such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a famous anti-lynching activist and a member of black Chicago’s political elite. Wells-Barnett brought respectability and the support of the city’s thousands of black clubwomen to the Brotherhood. At the same time, Randolph grew in stature as the foremost black labor leader and became the first head of the National Negro Congress (NNC), a characteristic Popular Front organization that sought to forge alliances among communists, socialists, and liberals organizing against racial and economic inequality. While the BSCP reached out to black leaders and community members, the union also took advantage of the 1934 Railway Labor Act to hold successful union elections among black porters. With mass black support, a new legal foundation, and the potential competition from the emerging CIO in mind, the AFL granted a charter to the BSCP in 1935. Two long years later, the Brotherhood finally signed its first contract with the Pullman Company, the first union contract for black workers with a major corporation.

The New Deal did not bring the country out of the depression, although it did improve the lives of millions of citizens and transformed the foundations of American politics so that future battles would be fought over the nature of organized labor’s place in the nation (rather than its mere right to exist) and over broad access to “security.” Union membership increased dramatically from just under 3 million in 1933 to approximately 12 million by 1945. President Roosevelt also helped create a fundamentally new national political alignment; success for the Democratic Party (outside the South, where the Democrats remained a conservative party until the rise of the southern wing of the Republican Party in the last third of the 20th century) would depend upon winning the votes of ethnic urban voters, unionized workers, and African Americans. In addition, the success of the CIO and the broad militancy of American workers led to a working-class-based cultural movement that one historian has termed “the laboring of American culture.”24 Workers and their worlds as subjects, and working-class artists, reshaped American music and the literary and visual arts, as well as popular culture on the radio, in movies, and in cartoons.

Workers and World War II

When Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the rate of American manufacturing surged, and within about eighteen months the nation’s economy was in a state of “full employment.” World War II, therefore, marked a profound turning point because it brought the country out of the depression, introduced thousands of women and black workers to the industrial labor force, reinforced the idea that federal government spending was essential to a healthy economy, and established unions as central permanent players in the national economy. The war also revolutionized American workers’ expectations. Rather than seeking to survive in what seemed to be an economic crisis without end, American workers entered the postwar world still deeply divided by race, geography, and social class, but expecting to share in a new era of prosperity.

Labor, including the CIO, solidified its place in the nation’s economy during the war. Though labor conflict continued as many workers fought for higher wartime wages, often in wildcat strikes, labor leaders gained standing by signing on to a no-strike pledge with the federal government’s labor mediation agency, the National War Labor Board. Labor unions also gained thousands of new members as they convinced the NWLB to refuse employers’ demands for an “open shop” in wartime industries, and they secured “maintenance of membership clauses” stipulating that workers who became union members during the war would remain members for the length of the contract.

As white men were drafted into the military by the tens of thousands, industries began to recruit white women to fill their spots. The famous images of “Rosie the Riveter” perhaps romanticize women’s experiences in the workforce, but women at the time did speak to the excitement and freedom they found in working outside the home and earning their own wages. The war did not usher in a rapid change in gender norms, at least not in majority public opinion. After the war, women were expected to leave the workforce, to allow returning veterans to take their jobs back, and to return to their “rightful” duties in the home. Yet women’s wartime experiences created changes that would eventually help create the modern feminist movements. First, although many women were ushered out of sectors of the workforce, women actually stayed in the labor force at higher numbers than ever before; married women, especially, worked in greater numbers than in any previous era of American history. Moreover, many women never forgot their experiences in the workforce, and their expectations for opportunities that the next generation of women should have were forever changed. Women in the labor movement who joined unions during the war also became leaders for a new labor-based feminism.25

Black men and women were also hired into industrial work by the tens or hundreds of thousands, but only after employers found they could not fill the jobs with white women. Mexican workers also found jobs during World War II, most notably through the federal government’s Bracero Program, a guest worker program that brought tens of thousands of Mexican workers into the United States to fill labor shortages in agriculture. Although opportunity came for black workers and women later than it did for white male workers, the war brought a radical improvement in economic conditions and raised expectations for all Americans. That the raised expectations of women and racial minorities were not fulfilled after the war meant that the increased opportunity of wartime actually helped sow the seeds for the civil rights movement and other social movements to follow.26

The United States emerged from World War II in a position to become an economic superpower. From 1945 to 1973, American workers enjoyed higher wages, greater job security, and a steadily improving standard of living. Workers in unions made even greater gains, including not only substantially higher wages but also health insurance and pensions. Even Americans on the margins of the workforce benefited from the expansion of unemployment compensation, welfare, and job training and placement programs. Unions played a major role in improving the standard of living of their members as their gains created a “ripple effect” that raised the wages and standard of living for non-union workers.

Workers made remarkable gains between 1900 and 1945. To be sure, this was no linear narrative of inevitable upward mobility and progress. But by the end of World War II, the combined forces of top-down reform and bottom-up activism had created a federal government that legalized and protected industrial workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively, as well as their right to a safe workplace with regulations for hours and wages. They had won access to a limited but growing public welfare state and a burgeoning private welfare system. Through both the AFL’s trade-union-led political activism and a broad world of working-class political activism and workers’ alliances with middle-class reformers and reform-minded politicians, they had made cities better places to live, banned child labor, won municipal ownership of utilities, strengthened their right of free speech, gained consumer protections, and opened new sectors of work to women and racial minorities. Moreover, industrial workers had earned a status as the virtuous “blue-collar” core of a self-consciously hard-working American society no longer divided so sharply divided along lines of national origin, though still deeply divided by the racism and segregation that remained the fundamental reality for African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans. With these newly won rights, protections, and status, the once marginalized and much-maligned American worker had secured a place within the consumerist industrial society and as one interest group among many in the political system.

Discussion of the Literature

The historiography of labor and working-class life and struggles in the United States originated in the labor economics movement of Progressive Era intellectuals. This was the stuff of big institutions. John R. Commons at the University of Wisconsin built on the work of earlier labor economists, including Richard T. Ely. Together, Commons and students like Selig Perlman developed a new field of institutional labor history. Taking for granted the growth of industrial production and market relations, they rather optimistically sought to understand the role that workers’ self-organization had played in the rise of labor in a U.S. context defined by American workers who were generally narrowly “job-conscious” rather than broadly “class-conscious” in their engagement with the state and industrial corporations. Emphasizing the significance of organized labor, and of trade unionism more specifically, as the key expression of American workers’ economic consciousness, the Commons School of labor history necessarily underestimated the importance of the vast majority of workers who were unorganized, and particularly missed the significance of women and racial minorities in the workforce.27

The Commons School of institutional labor history would eventually give way to broader conceptions of the history of work and labor struggles in the context of workers’ community and culture. In part, this was because some more radically minded historians did not share the Commons School’s commitment to trade unionism; such scholars would recover a long history of labor radicalism in the United States. Scholars focusing on immigration history, women’s history, African American history, and urban history would also revise the Commons School’s arguments, seeking to understand the ways that working-class culture and economic politics manifested themselves outside of the trade union movement. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, scholars such as Melvyn Dubofsky, David Montgomery, Herbert Gutman, and David Brody had begun to examine what would be known as the “new social history” or the “new labor history.”28 Given shape by E. P. Thompson’s monumental The Making of the English Working Class (1963),29 this impulse to study the ways workers create, and are created by, the world around them inspired more than a generation of work that sought out the connections between work, community, and power in the United States, where a Marxist-style class-consciousness had never been predominant. The new labor history also gave rise to scholars, perhaps inspired by the black freedom struggle and other social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, who sought to recover the history of women, slaves and free blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans.30

Since the 1980s, there has been a persistent sense that the field of labor history has been in a crisis, even as the production of labor and working-class scholarship has hardly slowed. With the cast of characters growing and local case studies multiplying every year, some observers wondered if a synthesis of the literature was possible. Was there ever such a thing that could be defined as the American labor and working-class history? Moreover, poststructuralism and postmodern cultural criticism called into question whether “class” could serve as a unifying concept. As Joan Wallach Scott would explain, it was not enough just to add women (or black workers, or immigrant workers, etc.) to the stage of history.31 It was not even enough to recover the experiences of previously underrepresented workers as some sort of objective evidence for what it meant to be different kinds of working-class people. Historians had to give up the notion that any social category—race, class, gender, sexuality—had any content outside of its historical context in that moment. They had to focus on the ways that people constantly create and re-create their identities; it was argued that it may be all one can do to explain that process of conscious and unconscious creation of self in a world that cannot be known as a whole.

To make matters more difficult for labor historians, as poststructuralism questioned the very categories historians had used to make sense of the past, beginning in the 1980s the political world around them was destroying the very institutions—labor unions—that had given the field coherence. Given the near decimation of organized labor, the decline of manufacturing jobs, and the diversification of the politics and social positions of working-class people, historians have had to rethink the assumptions of the field. No longer could it be taken for granted that a kind of interest-group politics and “business unionism” would be part of the American political economy.

As the implications of Reaganism and Thatcherism, as well as the triangulating centrism of the “New Democrats,” became clearer, historians began to explore labor and working-class history in a kind of blue mood.32 Some have pushed to “bring the state back in” to the story of working-class history in order to highlight the persistent dominance of anti-labor law and government subsidization of finance and manufacturing, as well as the concomitant weakness of workers in the capitalist system.33 Others have focused on why American workers have built a mode of labor so deeply intertwined with the ideologies and institutions of private property, empire, and racial and gender exclusion.34 For many, the watchwords became hegemony, agency, infrapolitics, resistance, identity, and culture, as they sought to shed light on the power of the state, corporate leaders, and employers to bring about workers’ accommodation to regimes of inequity or, alternatively, how even the most subordinated workers had managed to make their own history. This latter work, which had been initiated earlier by feminist and black historians, reshaped the investigations of all workers, bringing questions of whiteness, gender identity, and sexuality to the fore.35

The nearly complete triumph of anti-union politics, together with the global resurgence of economic inequality, has been so dramatic that historians have become skeptical of the value of recovering histories of workers’ agency. To be sure, with the ripples of mass militancy in the early 21st century there has been some effort to recover lost traditions of radicalism.36 But, generally speaking, the current conditions have become so reminiscent of the turn of the 20th century that historians have come to look for continuities not just of radicalism, but also of the connections among American imperialism, economic growth, and workers’ positions in a persistently unequal global economy. The historian Leon Fink, for instance, has joined a growing group of scholars in arguing that the history of American workers must be understood in light of transnational economic and political dynamics, and the evolution of global capitalism.37 In part, these histories counter notions that we live in a postracial, classless society where inequality is a sign of a healthy economy. But they are also attempts to make a clear-eyed assessment of the continuities in combined corporate and state power, whether one looks, for example, at the control of workers in the Panama Canal Zone or at the place of “unskilled” workers in a globalizing economy in the “Long Gilded Age.”38

From this perspective, the period between 1935 and the mid-1970s—the prime years of the “New Deal Order”—when the United States enjoyed its longest period of sustained economic growth along with the greatest equality of income in the industrial era, is really “the long exception.”39 If this is true, some argue that historians ought to look to the period between 1896 and 1945 for the most pertinent lessons on how workers have struggled to reconcile their values and traditions in an individualistic consumer society, when they have fought or accommodated with the realities of corporate dominance of the political and economic systems, and how those struggles both made great gains for American workers and left the American working class divided by race, gender, sexuality, region, skill level, and employment sector. Workers and their allies built significant, if highly problematic, reformist and radical movements that broke from the social Darwinism and laissez-faire ethos of the late 19th century, but most American workers did not directly share the more romantic experiences of such labor activism. Labor and working-class history, therefore, does not necessarily promise to offer a usable past for those seeking to build contemporary movements, but it does open the door to greater understanding and empathy with the complex lives and struggles of working people in previous eras of globalizing inequality.

Primary Sources

The main research problems for students of labor and working-class history are, first, to sift through the nearly limitless supply of relevant sources and, second, to find ways to include the voices of working people themselves. Because the state plays such a key role in shaping law and society, labor historians regularly consult municipal, county, state, and federal records, as well as court cases.40 Many historians of labor radicalism also make use of Freedom of Information Act requests to access the files that government agencies have collected while spying on activists.41 Records of unions, labor leaders, and the labor press are, of course, also critical. They are available in archives across the country, with major concentrations in New York City, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. The papers of civil rights and black nationalist organizations, as well as groups and leaders of the women’s movement and immigrants’ rights movements, are all essential, because the labor movement typically overlapped with other forms of social activism.42 Labor scholars also delve deeply into oral histories, often doing interviews of their own, but also by reading the transcripts of interviews with workers completed by previous scholars, as well as by social work agencies, congressional investigations, journalists, and more. Historians interested in the culture of class, and working-class culture, examine everything from songs, plays, novels, poems, and television shows to housing, clothes, and even the sounds and smells of working people’s communities in the past.

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Brody, David. Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the 20th Century Struggle. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Commons, John R. A History of Labor in the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1935.
  • Dubofsky, Melvin. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988 [1969].
  • Forbath, William E. Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.
  • Kessler-Harris, Alice. In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Lichtenstein, Nelson. Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003 [1982].
  • Montgomery, David. Worker’s Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
  • Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Nelson, Bruce. Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Tomlins, Christopher. The State and Unions: Labor Relations, Law, and the Organized Labor Movement in America, 1880–1960. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Vargas, Zaragosa. Proletarians of the North: A History of Mexican Industrial Workers in Detroit and the Midwest, 1917–1933. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.


  • 1. Beverly Gage, “Why Violence Matters: Radicalism, Politics, and Class War in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 1.1 (2007): 106.

  • 2. David Brody, Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the 20th Century Struggle (2d ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 6.

  • 3. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974).

  • 4. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, 36.

  • 5. Gage, “Why Violence Matters,” 104.

  • 6. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, 3.

  • 7. Julie Greene, Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881–1917 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

  • 8. Paul Michel Taillon, Good, Reliable, White Men: Railroad Brotherhoods, 1877–1917 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).

  • 9. Thomas G. Andres, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

  • 10. Melvyn Dubofsky and Foster Rhea Dulles, Labor in America: A History, Seventh Edition (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2004), 191; and Dorothy Sue Cobble, “Pure and Simple Radicalism: Putting the Progressive Era AFL in Its Time,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 10.4 (2013): 67–68.

  • 11. Youngsoo Bae, Labor in Retreat: Class and Community among Men’s Clothing Workers of Chicago, 1871–1929 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001); and Annelise Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women And Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900–1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

  • 12. “The Preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World,” as amended and appeared in the Proceedings of the 1908 IWW Convention in the Industrial Union Bulletin (November 7, 1908), in Joyce L. Kornbluh, ed., Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964), 13.

  • 13. Andrew Wender Cohen, The Racketeer’s Progress: Chicago and the Struggle for the Modern American Economy 1900–1940 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

  • 14. Brody, Workers, 27–28.

  • 15. Brody, Workers, 32–34.

  • 16. Bruce Nelson, Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), xxix.

  • 17. Samuel Gompers, “Trade Union Attitude Toward Colored Workers,” American Federationist 8.4 (April 1901): 119.

  • 18. Samuel Gompers, “Talks on Labor: Addresses at St. Paul and Minneapolis,” American Federationist 12 (1905): 638.

  • 19. Paul Moreno, Black Americans and Organized Labor: A New History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006).

  • 20. James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

  • 21. W. Elliot Brownlee, Dynamics of Ascent: A History of the American Economy (New York: Knopf, 1974), 411.

  • 22. Nelson, Divided, xxxiii.

  • 23. Eric Arnesen, Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); and Beth Tompkins Bates, Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

  • 24. Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1998).

  • 25. Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

  • 26. Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919–1950 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009); and Zaragosa Vargas, Labor Rights Are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

  • 27. John R. Commons, History of Labor in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1918–1935); and Selig Perlman, A Theory of the Labor Movement (New York: Macmillan, 1928).

  • 28. David Brody, “The Old Labor History and the New: In Search of an American Working Class,” Labor History 20 (1979): 111–26; Brody, Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the Twentieth-Century Struggle(New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1967); Dubofsky, John L. Lewis: A Biography (New York: Quadrangle Press, 1977); Herbert Gutman, Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America: Essays in American Working-Class and Social History (New York: Vintage Books, 1977); Gutman, Power and Culture: Essays on the American Working Class, Ira Berlin, ed., (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977); David Montgomery, Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862–1872 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967); Montgomery, Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles (New York: Cambridge University Press), 1979; and Montgomery, Workers' Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

  • 29. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963, repr.; New York: Vintage Books, 1966).

  • 30. Eric Arnesen, Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, Class and Politics, 1863–1923 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Jeanne Boydston, Home & Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); Barbara Fields, “Ideology and Race in American History,” in Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, eds. Morgan J. Koussar and James McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 143–177; Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974); Grossman, Land of Hope; Howard Lamar, “From Bondage to Contract: Ethnic Labor in the American West, 1600-1890,” in Steven Hahn and Jonathan Prude, eds., The Countryside in the Age of Capitalist Transformation: Essays in the Social History of Rural America (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 293–324; Earl Lewis, In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, Virginia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Annelise Orleck, Commons Sense and a Little Fire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985); Gunther Peck, Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the North American West, 1880–1930 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Peter Rachleff, Black Labor in the South: Richmond, Virginia, 1865–1890 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984); Alexander Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971); and Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860 (New York: Knopf, 1986).

  • 31. Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender as a Useful Category of Analysis,” The American Historical Review 91.5 (December 1986): 1053–1075; and Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17.4 (Summer 1991): 773–797.

  • 32. Nick Salvatore, “American Labor History,” in Industrial Relations at the Dawn of the New Millennium, ed. M. F. Neufeld and J. T. McKelvey (Ithaca, NY: Industrial Labor Relations Press, 1998), 114–123.

  • 33. Melvyn Dubofsky, The State and Labor in Modern America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); and William E. Forbath, Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

  • 34. David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987); and Victoria Hattam, Labor Visions and State Power: The Origins of Business Unionism in the United States (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).

  • 35. Eric Arnesen, et al., “Scholarly Controversy: Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination,” Forum in International Labor and Working-Class History 60 (Fall 2001): 1–92; Ava Baron, Work Engendered: Toward New History of American Labor (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991); George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World (New York: BasicBooks, 1994); Robin D. G. Kelley, “‘We Are Not What We Seem’: Rethinking Black Working-Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South,” Journal of American History 80.1 (June 1993): 75–112; and David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of American Labor History (New York: Verso, 1991).

  • 36. Philip Dray, There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America (New York: Anchor, 2011).

  • 37. Leon Fink, ed., Workers across the Americas: The Transnational Turn in Labor History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  • 38. Julie Greene, The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal (New York: Penguin, 2010); and Leon Fink, The Long Gilded Age: American Capitalism and the Lessons of a New World Order (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

  • 39. Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore, “The Long Exception: Rethinking the Place of the New Deal in American History,” International Labor and Working-Class History 74 (2008): 1–32.

  • 40. The local, county, and state records are often found in university government records repositories. For federal records, begin with the online site of the National Archives and Records Administration.

  • 41. See Freedom of Information/Privacy Act.

  • 42. Especially helpful are the holdings of the Kheel Center at the Cornell University Library; the Southern Labor Archives at Georgia State University; the University of Wisconsin at Madison Archives; the Newberry Library in Chicago; UCLA Library Special Collections in the Charles E. Young Research Library; the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit; and Taminent Library and Robert F. Wagner Archives in New York City. The papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are available in digitized format through the online database ProQuest. See also the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. For a guide to researching women’s history archives, see the Gateway to Library of Congress Resources for the Study of Women’s History and Culture in the United States.