In February 1919, in Seattle, Washington, 100,000 workers from virtually every industry went on strike, bringing their city to a halt. The strike stemmed from an alliance between the AFL and the I.W.W., and it was a peaceful form of resistance to what the workers saw as capitalist exploitation. However, in response to the strike, the federal government sent troops and the strike ended after five days, partly because of the soldiers and partly because of the difficulties of “living in a shut-down city.” In the following weeks, the army arrested many union leaders and harassed I.W.W. members. Why was there such an uproar in response to the peaceful strike? In part, the strike infuriated the government because of what it symbolized: a growing resistance to order.
1919 was one of the most important years for populism in America, on par with 1848 and 1968. It’s a sign of the coalition building between different unions (and the widespread opposition to American capitalism) that the AFL and the I.W.W. worked together to declare a strike in Seattle. Traditionally, the AFL took a different approach to union-building than the I.W.W., and didn’t extend a warm welcome to black or female workers. Thus, the strike was dangerous to American elites because it symbolized the unity of the American people.
In the 1920s, the popular resistance died down: the I.W.W.’s leadership was “destroyed,” and the economy was doing “just well enough for just enough people to prevent mass rebellion.” Around the same time, Congress passed laws to prevent large numbers of foreigners from immigrating. The 1920s also saw the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. In all, the popular image of the 1920s as a fun, easy-going “Jazz Age” is a distortion of the truth. While unemployment was low in the 1920s and wages increased, prosperity remained concentrated at the top of society. There were few charismatic leaders left to speak out on behalf of the working class, as many of them were in jail. In the 1920s, with the Socialist party severely weakened by World War One, the Communist Party rose to a new level of prominence. The American Communist Party organized many strikes and protests.
Zinn is skeptical of the peace and prosperity of the 1920s; he points out that, although the average American worker enjoyed slightly higher wages and shorter hours during the twenties, these increases in wealth paled in comparison with those of the Establishment during the same era. In short, Zinn speculates that the labor movement in America died down during the twenties because the Establishment gave the common man just enough money not to rebel any further. Additionally, many of the most important labor leaders were in prison, leaving the American people unorganized.
In 1929, the stock market crashed. In many ways, the crash was the result of the inherent instability of the American economic system: as the famous economist John Galbraith wrote, the crash reflected unhealthy banking structures, economic misinformation, and, not least, the “bad distribution of income.” In 1929, one could argue, capitalism proved to be “a sick and undependable system.”
Zinn doesn’t delve into the circumstances of the stock market crash of 1929; instead, he cites Galbraith (whose opinion hasn’t been without controversy). Nevertheless, Zinn’s fundamental point here is that the Great Depression proved that there were basic problems with capitalism. America faced a choice: should it try to reform capitalism, or replace it with “something completely different?”
Throughout the 1930s, a new spirit of radicalism suffused the working classes. In his novels, the writer John Steinbeck describes the working classes’ sense of injustice. One of the key cultural artifacts of the 1930s is the folk song, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” in which a homeless World War One veteran begs for money. The Depression drove many veterans to homelessness, and, in 1932, some veterans, calling themselves the “Bonus Army,” camped out in Washington, D.C. demanding that the government pay out on their “bonus certificates” (promises of payment that the army had given them in the war). In response, General Douglas MacArthur, a future World War Two hero, led U.S. troops to break up the Bonus Army with tear gas.
Zinn is attentive to the reaction of artists and intellectuals to the Great Depression; he seems to respect authors like John Steinbeck for paying homage to the dignity of the American people in such novels as The Grapes of Wrath. At the same time, Zinn makes it clear that the Establishment continued to oppress the poor and suffering. Indeed, the government turned its back on its own former troops. MacArthur is still regarded as a war hero, but he began his career by brutally suppressing his fellow soldiers in Washington, D.C.
In response to the Great Depression, what kinds of reforms did the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt offer? Roosevelt’s first significant action as president was to support the National Recovery Act, which was designed to protect business interests. In general, Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were designed to protect the economic status quo while making some concessions to the poor (for example, providing jobs and lowering electricity rates for struggling families).
As with the Progressive movement, Zinn argues that the New Deal was, first and foremost, a way of preserving the status quo and providing minor reforms to placate the working class. (Zinn does not delve into the radicalism of Roosevelt’s vision of welfare and social security, probably because such a discussion would contradict his argument for Roosevelt as a conservative figure.)
At the same time that Franklin Roosevelt was acting to protect business interests, the working classes were working hard to protect themselves, and each other. Starving people resorted to robbery to feed their families, and, in some cases, when people were evicted from their homes, crowds would gather around the house to prevent the police from forcing the resident to leave. Pennsylvania miners took it upon themselves to truck their “bootleg coal” to East Coast cities and sell it below the commercial rate.
Zinn provides many examples of how workers looked out for one another and protected their common interests. However, some of these examples don’t necessarily prove what he wants them to prove. For instance, the miners who sold extra coal to city-dwellers may not have been looking out for their fellow Americans; they may have been trying to make some extra money. Furthermore, the miner’s behavior suggests that, in a time of crisis, they mirrored the behavior of capitalist elites, further complicating Zinn’s argument.
Zinn wonders if the Franklin Roosevelt administration understood “that measures must be quickly taken … to wipe out the idea that the problems of the workers could be solved only by themselves.” In 1934, Congress introduced the Wagner-Connery Bill, designed to regulate labor disputes and provide elections for union representation. Zinn asks, “Was this not exactly the kind of legislation to do away with the idea that the problems of the workers can be solved only by themselves?”
Again, Zinn resorts to asking rhetorical questions about the motives of the Roosevelt administration, instead of studying the evidence carefully and providing explicit interpretations of it. Zinn’s seems to be implying that Congress deliberately tried to stymy the labor movement by providing some minor, superficial reforms; however, it seems that Zinn could argue just as easily that some politicians were deliberately trying to protect American people.
Unions held strikes throughout the 1930s and were often attacked by federal troops for doing so. During the Great Depression, black farmers were “the worst off,” and they began to organize into unions in greater numbers. The Depression also marked the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which had originally been a branch of the AFL designed for unskilled laborers. At factories and plants across the countries, union members pioneered “sit down” striking—i.e., staying in the plant without working, rather than leaving the building. In 1937 alone, there were 477 sit-down strikes, several of which succeeded in raising wages. Sit-down strikes were especially dangerous to the elite because they could be organized without unions’ authority. Often, workers simply decided to strike without anyone’s permission but their own. In some ways, sit-down strikes pushed businessmen to cooperate with union leadership—unions weren’t desirable, but it was easier to work with unions than with the workers themselves.
Furthermore, Zinn argues, government bureaucrats preferred to deal with union representatives than with the workers directly. Therefore, the sit-down strikes were an effective negotiating strategy for the American worker: by refusing to be orderly or predictable, workers pressured the federal government to cooperate with union leaders who, while not perfect, were likely to look out for their members’ well-being and wages. In short, sit-down strikes could be said to exemplify the process by which the American people take radical action and pressure the government to institute modest, but still important, reforms in policy.
The Wagner Act of 1935, the finalized version of the Wagner-Connery Bill, was an attempt by the U.S. government to stabilize the country by granting some minor relief to the working class. The Act allowed governments to regulate interstate commerce, protecting union interests. It also strengthened ties between government officials, businesses, and union leaders. After the Wagner Act, unions had to go through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to gain legal status; henceforth, unions had to organize their members’ grievances and try to minimize strikes “in order to build large influential, even respectable organizations.” Union membership grew during the 1930s, but, thanks in large part to the Wagner Act and the NLRB, union power decreased: union gains “from the uses of strikes kept getting whittled down.” Meanwhile, the Supreme Court declared sit-downs to be illegal.
As Zinn sees it, the Wagner Act created a new distance between union leadership and workers themselves. Henceforth, union leaders had to interact directly with politicians and government bureaucrats, and, Zinn suggests, they became more loyal to the Establishment than to their own members. In short, Zinn concludes, government instituted a series of impressive-sounding (but actually mild) reforms in union policy, which had the effect of weakening the strength of the American labor movement and dividing unions.
The New Deal reduced unemployment somewhat; however, it was World War Two that “put almost everyone to work.” During World War Two, unions pledged not to engage in strikes. Furthermore, the working classes’ energies were again directed outwards, rather than toward powerful elites in the U.S. In all, the 1930s and 40s marked some major gains for unions, but also a steady decline in the power of unions and the “old labor militancy.” In many ways, the greatest legacy of the 1930s for organized labor was that the elite found new ways of controlling the working classes: most of all, “internal control by their own organizations.” When the New Deal concluded, “capitalism remained intact,” and many of the same wealthy people continued to control the country.
In this passage, Zinn foreshadows the events of the next chapter, in which he’ll discuss the state of the labor movement during World War Two. Instead of celebrating the New Deal for giving the government a new obligation to respect unions, Zinn criticizes the New Deal for weakening unions’ power. Many historians, including some left-wing historians, disagree with Zinn’s pessimistic conclusions: it has been argued that the New Deal instituted a radical and fundamental change in American society by impelling the government to acknowledge the existence of and cooperate with unions.
The New Deal was somewhat encouraging for African Americans. During the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt (largely because of his wife Eleanor Roosevelt’s encouragement) appointed some black people to administrative posts; however, the New Deal largely ignored black farmers. Roosevelt needed the support of Southern voters; as a result, he was careful not to be too generous to blacks and not to criticize segregation or lynching. During the thirties, some radicals, especially Communists and Socialists, tried to recruit black workers with some success. The CIO, which was heavily influenced by its Communist members, organized black members “into the mass-production industries.” And while there was “no great feminist movement in the thirties,” many radical women became involved in labor organizing. Meanwhile, World War Two “was not far off.”
Roosevelt may have been a sincere reformer, Zinn argues, but his political goals were weakened by his own desire to get reelected. Thus, he avoided alienating Southern voters with talk of equality or racial unity. Dissatisfied with the moderate nature of Roosevelt’s reforms, many working-class Americans, including women and black laborers, worked together to oppose capitalism in their own way. However, as Zinn will show in the next chapter, World War Two largely shut down the radical movement in America.