Lizabeth Cohen. Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Lizabeth Cohen poses a simple question: How could industrial workers become effective national political participants in the 1930s given that they sustained heavy defeats after the 1919 Steel and Packinghouse Strikes and general avoidance of unionism in the 1920s. Her answer is that Chicago workers in the late 1910s lived in highly segregated neighborhoods: Poles lived in The Bush, Swedes and Germans in Cheltenham, Slovaks in Back of the Yards, Blacks on the South Side. Furthermore, cultural animosity – in large part stirred by factory managers who pitted native and foreign-born workers and best highlighted by the 1919 race riot targeting both Black and Lithuanian homes – prohibited ethnic workers from collaborating and forming a stroke political entity.

Due to their segregation, the working class frequented their own commercial institutions. Due to interest in World War I Liberty Bonds, a number of small banks serving ethnic neighborhoods sprung up with calls such as “let Polish savings go into Polish hands and into Polish industry.” Efforts by the Catholic Church and Archdiocese George Mundelein to “Americanize” parish life failed as church-going Italians, for instance, became more aware of their own nationality. And as ethnic parishes came to “take care of their own,” an entire insurance commerce sprung up with names such as Bohemian Charitable Association.


While workers turned to ethnic institutions to provide loans, insurance, and entertainment (as Cohen describes in her chapter in Glickman and in Chapter 2), they also turned to their workplace for similar means. Motivated in large part by the threat of working-class militancy in 1919, employers began to imagine themselves as “enlightened corporations” that would promote “welfare capitalism.” The idea was that by rewarding workers through wages and promotions, experimenting with industrial democracy, instituting welfare programs, and assuming community responsibilities, industries such as Western Electric, Hawthorne Works, Wisconsin Steel, International Harvest, Armour and Company, and Gary Works would turn workers away from their ethnic institutions and towards their employers. In other words, they would target the same enthusiasm that motivated workers to purchase Liberty Bonds from the Slovak Papanek-Kovac State Bank  and channel it to purchasing company stock. The rationale was not only to appease workers, but it served as a form of pre-New Deal PR that Stuart Ewen discusses: what welfare capitalists did not provide, government surely would, with even more government regulation and tax burdens.


When the Great Depression hit, employers could no longer provide the “moral capitalism” (such as Oscar Mayer handing out sausages to hungry employees ) that they had promised their workers. Ethnic benefit societies such as the Polish National Alliance, Bingo State Bank, Italo-American Building and Loan Association, as well as ethnic stores could no longer provide loans, credit, or services to their clientele. In both cases, working-class Americans grew accustomed to an idea (fulfilled or not) that an institution, whether employer or communal, would provide them support. Now that neither could, they turned to the state.


In the 1930s, Chicago workers embraced politics for the first time. Most immigrants could vote and the promise of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Democratic Party turned out almost 81 percent ethnic support in their favor. Once elected, working class voters felt that Democrats owed them, at the very least for the citizenship  status and military service, and would provide the services that their ethnic institutions and employers used to. They demanded welfare programs such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and were saved by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation.


Thanks to the 1932, Norris-LaGuardia Act, federal courts could not issue injunctions against nonviolent labor dispute. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) prohibited any efforts by employers to "interfere with, restrain or coerce employees in the exercise” of their "right of self-organization,” which essentially meant workers could not be fired for joining a union.


However, she intervenes in the “whig” history of the state’s growing role in industrial relations.  At the local level, many of Chicago's manufacturing workers were involved in building a new institution of their own, a network of national-level industrial unions designed to make demands of the employers they held responsible for much of their suffering. Common experiences during the 1920s and the Great Depression made them more capable of unifying against employers who long had tried to defeat them by dividing them. In an ironic effort to keep ethnic loyalties at bay, employers began to mix work gangs in order to break up ethnic subcultures that might subvert managerial authority. However, although employers failed to realize it, their determination to mix ethnic groups in the factory broadened the new alliances that output restriction had created among workers. Even outside of work, workers who still lived apart fromeach other gained new opportunities to mix now that their employers were organizing activities like the department baseball team or at the company dance outside of working hours.


Unions attracted interethnic personnel because, on the simplest level of demographics, more workers were English speaking, second-generation ethnics or blacks who had lived in the North for years. As Jonathan Zimmerman notes in "Ethnics against Ethnicity: European Immigrants and Foreign-Language Instruction, 1890-1940” (The Journal of American History, Vol. 88, No. 4 [Mar., 2002]), Polish-Americans, at best, continued to speak a Polish-English hybrid, but at worst, by 1937, had willingly begun to relinquish their mother tongue. The failure of ethnic institutions during the Great Depression additionally meant that more workers were listening to a more standardized range of programing on the radio, such as the Max Schmeling - Joe Louis fight in June 1938. Radio, in general, in an argument echoed by Bruce Lenthall (Radio's America: The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture. Chicago, IL. University of Chicago Press, 2008.) made Americans imagine personal relationships with announcers on entertainment and public affairs programs and found themselves, often for the first time in their lives, connected with an evolving complex national community and believing they had some influence in this mass society.


In a move that resembled efforts by employers, the Congress of Industrial Organizations made great efforts to unite workers across ethnicity. Taverns provided regular meeting places for union members in particular departments as well as a central location for stewards to collect dues and the pages of all CIO newspapers were filled with reports of dances, picnics, summer camps, softball teams, and bowling leagues.