A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States


There was a wealthy class of people in this country who remained wholly unaffected by the Great Depression, whose lives were not changed one whit by it. Most Americans, however, were swept up--or, more accurately, down--by this great, shattering economic collapse. Two important chapters which must be appended to a general history of the Depression belong to black Americans and to trade unionists of every color.

Black Americans

For blacks, the thirties were basically more of the same. There were a few moments of pride: the athletic feats of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens along side continuing examples of egregious racism: the Scottsboro Boys case, 10 lynchings per year, the refusal of the Daughters of the American Revolution to allow the great African-American opera singer Marion Anderson to sing in their Independence Hall. (By the way, Eleanor Roosevelt, a true champion of black rights, immediately resigned her DAR membership, and arranged for Marion Anderson to sing at a giant outdoor concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial).

When the Depression hit, blacks were already among the poorest Americans, generally occupying the lowest rungs of the economic and social ladder, north and south. Of course, economic collapse didn’t help matters any. As factories ground to a halt, millions of workers were laid off, and black Americans tended to be “last hired, first fired.”

A number of historians of this period point to a perverse advantage that poor people, particularly Africans-Americans, supposedly had over more affluent citizens. Tempered by their previous suffering and experience with poverty, blacks were said to be more familiar with strategies for survival: rent parties, reliance on extended families, willingness to do menial labor, if necessary. Moreover, these scholars suggest,  black Americans were better immunized from the most severe devastation which the Depression visited on the American psyche. Unemployed whites had to adjust to a significant drop in their social status and often blamed themselves for their misfortune. Blacks didn’t have as far to fall, and could see themselves, credibly, as victims of a unjust system.

How did blacks feel about the New Deal? An objective observer might conclude that the glass was half-empty. For example, blacks could join the CCC, but throughout the south they had to stay in segregated CCC camps. Blacks got their share of PWA and WPA jobs, but they usually were assigned the most unskilled tasks, the so-called “shovel work.” Under the NRA, blacks could even (legally) receive a lower minimum wage than whites. Finally, if blacks constituted 50% of a city’s population, they would receive half of all available relief funds. This sounded fair, but blacks might constitute more than half of all the neediest. One group of black Americans--sharecroppers--were even hurt by a New Deal program. When white farmers took land out of cultivation to qualify for AAA subsidies, it was frequently their poorest land--that farmed by their black sharecroppers--that was withdrawn.

So how did black Americans evaluate their treatment at the hands of Mr. Roosevelt? We have excellent, indisputable evidence that they most definitely saw their New Deal glass as half-full.

Franklin Roosevelt ran for his second term in the so-called the “Roosevelt Referendum” of 1936, and he won an immense, landslide victory. After the numbers were tabulated, it was clear that not only had the FDR and the New Deal won a glowing vote of confidence from the American people, but a major political earthquake had occurred which still helps define the electoral landscape of America.

The quake consisted in this: for the first time since blacks (males only, please!) first received the right to vote via the 15th Amendment, African-Americans had deserted the party of Lincoln and moved en masse into the columns of the Democratic Party rolls. There they have remained to this day, the most dedicated and liberal group within that party’s ranks.

Why this overwhelmingly enthusiastic response when the New Deal abided segregation and tolerated racism, and when FDR himself--for political reasons--refused to support a bill that would have made lynching a federal crime?

The answer lay in the fact that, for the first time, FDR established the principle that all Americans--regardless of color or ethnicity-- had the right to participate in and benefit from federal programs. Moreover, as with whites, FDR managed to project a personal concern for hard-hit Americans, those whom he addressed in his speeches as, “My friends.” Americans responded in kind. When FDR died, one African-American echoed the sentiments of millions when he said:
“I figure he was one of greatest presidents we ever had. I felt like I lost a brother.” In sharecropper shacks throughout the south, walls were decorated with pictures of Christ--and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Marion Anderson
Scottsboro Boys
Joe Louis
Jesse Owens
“Shovel Work”
The Election of 1936

The Union Movement

This is an amazing story which provides a stark counterpoint to the stagnation and decline of the union movement in America today. If it was shot as a movie, it would have to be shown in Cinemascope and Surround Sound. We are talking epic here, a “cast of thousands” (read: millions) ....but first a few words of review and background.

When we last left this story, the labor movement was in retreat. After struggling to be born in the bloody labor/management conflicts of the post-Civil War period, on battlefields known as Haymarket, Pullman, and Homestead, now the labor movement began to grow. Reinforced by the millions of Americans thrown from farms into factories and supported by a growing socialist movement (and even some progressives), the ranks of “Organized Labor” continued to swell through the first quarter of the 20th Century.

During WWI, unions grew even more rapidly, as the War Labor Board cautioned employees to accept collective bargaining so that homefront production would be spared damaging strife and strikes. But when wartime tensions found expression in the Red Scare, labor’s fortunes changed dramatically and unions were forced to beat a quick retreat.

During the Red Scare, the Wobblies were crushed through federal court prosecutions and National Guard raids. Even the more mainstream unions (belonging to the AF of L) did not fare well during the conservative, pro-big business years of the “Coolidge Prosperity.” Increasingly. employers pushed the “American (Open Shop) Plan” with great success. As we approached the eve of the great Depression, the labor movement was shrinking and radicals were nowhere to be found. Then the Stock Market crashed and millions were plunged into poverty and despair--overnight.

When the capitalist system nearly collapsed in 1929, only the stock of radical groups went bullish. Since capitalism didn’t seem to work, perhaps another system would. So reasoned the hundreds of thousands of Americans who swelled the ranks of the Socialist and Communist parties. The “Roaring Twenties” were over, and with them went the fads, foibles, and flappers of that dizzy decade. Once again, there were demonstrations, strikes, and clashes with police, as hungry people demanded food and justice. Goodbye to the city/ town cultural clashes of the 20’s. Once more class struggle was in vogue.

The labor movement helped give organization and direction to the anger and desperation of the American people. (And radicals helped give direction to the labor movement). Indeed, you cannot understand FDR and the New Deal, unless you first realize that he was making decisions against a background of marching feet and desperate people. “If we do not give the American people what they want,” he warned, “someone else will.” (In Germany, this same depression-era desperation would bring to power, in the year of FDR’s first election, an obscure ex-corporal named Adolph Hitler). The labor movement helped to generate the powerful winds that blew across the thirties. FDR did not create those winds and he could not stop them. His genius lay in his successfully sailing the ship of state through these storms, saving capitalism (which he favored) while responding to the demands of the American people.

What was the labor movement in 1930? Basically, it was the American Federation of Labor, the mainstream organization to which belonged trade unions of highly skilled workers, the so-called “aristocracy of labor.” Its members supported the New Deal with great enthusiasm and benefitted mightily from FDR’s progressive agenda. First in the NRA (with its famous Section 7a) and later in the Wagner Act ( the so-called “Magna Carta of Labor”), the federal government for the first time guaranteed workers the right to organize unions and to bargain collectively. Until employers were forbidden by this law from interfering with these rights, they tried to organize  “company unions,” run by the companies themselves and which workers were forced to join. Businesses had also spent some $20 million in the 30’s alone on spies and weapons with which to defeat unionizing attempts.

The labor legislation of the New Deal energized the labor movement. One labor leader, only slightly stretching the truth, told workers that “President Roosevelt wants you to join a union!” Roosevelt’s support for labor was good politics. It helped make union workers part of the Democratic Party faithful. It was also good anti-depression medicine. Indeed, some historians think that Roosevelt’s pro-union stance came less out of his sympathy for working people than out of his belief that unions would help raise wages, and that this in turn would help to stimulate consumer demand and revive the economy. To the extent that the wealthy Roosevelt was actually moved by real feeling for the working class, credit must go to Eleanor Roosevelt. She served as his “legs,” and she travelled the country, reporting back to him, with passion and compassion, the actual conditions in which people were living. There was little doubt that she was further down the left side of the political spectrum that he.

The labor movement was unleashed. But for some of its members, it was not moving far or fast enough, either in terms of pushing the New Deal to the left or in organizing new members. Within the somewhat stodgy and elitist AF of L, there was organized the “Committee on Industrial Organizations.”  This group of unionists, more radical than the AF of L leadership,  was intent on pushing the AF of L to “organize the unorganized,” the tens of thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the great mass production industries such as automobiles and steel. Moreover, they wanted to organize these workers along “industrial unionism” principles. This meant that these workers would be organized in unions according to industry, with skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers all mixed together. The “CIO” group believed that this kind of organization would be more effective in closing down, say, an automobile plant, during a strike. “Industrial Unionism” really marked a return to the Wobbly’s radical ideal of the “One Big Union” that would one day unify the working class against the capitalist elite.

Two years after the CIO was formed, in 1936, the leadership of the AF of L expelled the group. They were a little too radical for the cautious old labor federation. Rather than disappearing, however, the “CIO” reappeared--using the same initials but a slightly different name--as the “Congress of Industrial Organizations.” Under the leadership of John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers Union, the CIO set itself up as a rival labor federation to the AFL--the more progressive alternative, if you will. Though the top leadership of the CIO were not socialists or communists, these radicals were welcomed into the organization where they played important roles as organizers. Beginning in 1936, armed with the Wagner Act and support from FDR, this brash, young organization ventured forth to organize the giant mass production industries of the United States.

Victory would not come easily. Blood would be shed to win rights that are being challenged again today. Ironically, entire industries that the CIO had organized are now being exported to low-wage countries. America no longer makes most of its steel or automobiles, two industries once vital to our economic development. In the new “Global Economy,” national boundaries have disappeared, a fact which has proved devastating to some unions and to many communities, once part of proud “Smokestack America,” now part of the national “Rust Belt.”

The battles that the CIO fought were titanic in scope and intensity. The Great Depression was filled with many indelible events. None were more dramatic, however, than the CIO’s attempt to organize the automobile industry during the Great Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936, an event which some saw as a prelude to a new American Revolution.

So if you have been standing up, please sit down. If you have been sitting down, please go to sleep. You will need your strength, for when this story is recounted in class tomorrow, we will reenact the events at Flint by attempting to take over the entire school. I will secure the frozen yogurt machine. Solidarity forever!

“Industrial Unionism”
John Lewis
The Wagner Act
The NRA, Section 7a

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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